Street ball is his road to NBA playground

NBA: Former New York City schoolyard star Rafer Alston has found his niche as a pro.

February 08, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Rafer Alston can remember the play.

It came in the middle of a three-on-one fast break at New York's famed Rucker Park, on a summer night nearly 14 years ago. Alston started skipping down the court, dribbling on his knees, rising quickly before wrapping the ball around the back of a defender and delivering it to one of his teammates.

Alston was already well-known on the city's Amateur Athletic Union circuit. But now, his basketball persona was born.

"Everyone started calling me `Skip To My Lou,' " Alston, now 28 and a point guard with the Toronto Raptors, recalled recently. "That nickname's been with me ever since."

Through four years at a high school in Queens, where Alston was often overshadowed by another phenom from Brooklyn named Stephon Marbury. Through three years and two junior colleges in California and one tumultuous season at Fresno State.

After college, Alston was an immediate star - or at least his alter ego was changed to a more stylish "Skip 2 My Lou." Alston became the focal point of fledgling sneaker maker And1's "Street Ball" commercials that were eventually turned into an ESPN reality series.

For the kid who had been weaned on the stories of New York schoolyard legends - from Connie Hawkins and Earl Manigault to Pearl Washington and Kenny Anderson - being part of this hip-hoop world was intoxicating. "Everyone loved the oohs and ahs and all the flair to the game," said Alston.

In real life, Alston, 6 feet 2 and 170 pounds, was just another basketball vagabond, trying to prove that he had more game than those who never made it out of the playgrounds. He quickly realized that some NBA coaches and general managers, even some players, were skeptical because of the television character he portrayed.

"Once street ball is above your name, some people look at you as some sort of problem," said Alston. "I didn't want to go back home unless I was one of those guys with my name on the back of an NBA jersey."

Alston had other, more serious issues to straighten out.

During his one season at Fresno State, he was charged with misdemeanor assault and was later suspended from school after failing to attend anger management classes. Drafted in the second round by the Milwaukee Bucks, Alston spent the 1998-99 season on the NBA's suspended list, playing with the Idaho Stampede of the Continental Basketball Association.

As a rookie with the Bucks in 1999-2000, and into the second of three seasons in Milwaukee, Alston said that coach George Karl "was afraid to put me on the court." According to those familiar with Alston's first stay in Toronto, Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens didn't know what to make of his backup point guard, either.

"Lenny thought Rafer was from Mars," said a reporter who covered the team.

It took Alston to land in Miami last season for the former street legend to get some NBA cred.

Playing alongside rookie sensation Dwyane Wade and veteran Eddie Jones, Alston averaged career highs of more than 30 minutes, 10.2 points and 4.5 assists while never missing a game. As Wade's point guard responsibilities expanded in the playoffs, Alston's role decreased.

Alston signed a five-year contract with Toronto (estimated to be worth between $27 million and $30 million) last July. Alston says he harbors no ill will toward the Heat for not making him a more substantial offer.

In fact, Alston believes that his season in Miami went a long way toward him having a productive NBA career.

"It was very rewarding, it enabled me to have security in this league," said Alston. "I give credit to my coaches and teammates for hanging with me because I wasn't really shooting well, I was playing well, but I was able to help the team down the stretch, things that really helped my growth."

Alston, though improving his stats with the Raptors this season, has shown recently that he still has some growing up to do.

In a Dec. 3 game against Boston, Alston received a technical foul, and first-year Raptors coach Sam Mitchell told his starting point guard to leave the bench. After Mitchell benched Alston for the remainder of the game and didn't start him in the team's next game. Alston threatened to quit.

After what he perceived to be a lackluster performance by Toronto against Charlotte on Jan. 28, Alston abruptly left practice the next day and was suspended for two games. He returned for Friday's win over the Wizards in which the Raptors, with Alston running the point, came back from a 22-point second-half deficit.

"I knew I made a mistake," Alston said. "I've made mistakes in the past, and I've overcome those mistakes."

Alston is going to have a little help this time. His mother arrived last week from the family's home in Queens to live with him for a while, prompting Alston to joke, "She told Rob [Babcock, the Raptors general manager] that she's bringing a belt, an extension cord and a hammer. If you don't see me sitting on the bench, you'll know why."

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